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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 28, 2006

A skillfully crafted obituary can have its own charm

By John Griffin

It's time for all of us to give obituaries more attention and a higher place in our lives.

Sure, surveys have long shown that "obits" are already among the most-read parts of the newspaper. The Advertiser and other papers give them a regular location and higher prominence when newsworthy.

But I have also come to share the view that we also may well be in a "golden age" of obituary writing and reading. That's a point made in a well-received new book by Marilyn Johnson, a veteran writer and editor for leading American magazines.

"The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries" (Harper-Collins Publishers) is, as the title implies, a humorous yet thought-provoking look at the history and journalistic and literary subculture of writing about the newly dead.

Part of my interest comes from personal aging. As a younger journalist, my focus was on the future, being a foreign correspondent, etc. Obits seemed a dull job assigned mostly to old writers and new reporters being trained. I then read only the ones about prominent people.

Now I even find myself skimming those capsule obituaries on Page B2, looking for old friends or others I remember. (Among other things, I wonder how some older folks in Hawai'i got their unusual nicknames ones like Shoestring, Kookie, Mousey, Peanuts, Mustard and the like.

I once had a couple of local-guy relatives nicknamed "TB," because he suffered from that disease, and "Pinochle," because he once bought the wrong deck of cards for a poker game).

On another but related level, I read The Advertiser's "History of Today" feature to both learn new dimensions of old Hawai'i and to review, even at times relive, the half-century of it I remember.

Beyond the reader-age factor, however, "The Dead Beat" makes the point that obituary scope and writing have improved much in recent years, starting in the 1980s in London, which the author calls the world's capital of the genre.

On this she writes:

"A great British obit doesn't read like a prosaic resume. It's an opinionated gem of a biography, informed by all kinds of history, high and low, including gossip. It has the clear-eyed perspective of an op-ed piece and drama of the news. It doesn't pull its punches in consideration of the dead; it aims not just for factual truth, as one of the editors put it, but for some sort of 'higher truth' and it takes pleasure in its aiming."

Most American obits (or British, or others for that matter) don't hit all those peaks. We are often kinder or more muted.

Still, as author Johnson indicates, many national and local editorials in this country are impressive and sometimes approach art. At their best, they are not about death but about how the subject lived and what that tells us about the flow of history and how generations can learn from each other.

Some of the Hawai'i obituaries that impressed me in this regard recently were those of former Honolulu Police Chief Michael Nakamura, waterman Sam "Steamboat" Mokuahi Jr., and Dwayne Nakila Steele, the businessman who became an expert in Hawaiian culture.

Another was Advertiser writer Dan Nakaso's front-page obituary last Sunday on business leader J.W.A. "Doc" Buyers. An obituary editorial Tuesday stressed Buyers' special role in Hawai'i's transition to diversified agriculture.

In a special category to me are the accident victims, such as the high school kids who die in early hours on rural roads and the immigrant women killed going to farm jobs in Kunia.

Yet another example of ordinary folks thrust into front-page obituaries is the war dead from Hawai'i in Iraq and Afghanistan. They expand the dimensions of death, and by extension our lives today.

My point, then, is that obituaries are more with us than we realize. And that is going to be even more so as members of the massive boomer generation, now starting to enter their 60s, both attend to parents' passing and increasingly contemplate another obituary coming their own.

John Griffin, a frequent contributor, is a former Advertiser editorial page editor.